Curt Fowler | Five Steps to Fix Toxic Culture

| May 14, 2018

Curt Fowler | Fowler & Company | Fowler, Holley, Rambo & Stalvey

If you recognize you have a toxic culture or if you inherit one, you can fix it. Below are the five steps to implement a culture turnaround. It will not be easy, but it can be done and beats the alternative.

1 – Identify It – As a leader, you must come to terms with the brutal facts about your culture. Backstabbing, gossip, workaholism or simply lack of joy must be addressed. Talk to your team about the bad stuff you have uncovered and ask them to share what they see. Speaking first about the negative culture will give your team the confidence they need to give you honest feedback.

If your team does not feel comfortable giving direct feedback, create anonymous paths for them to give their input. Use surveys or hire a third party to lead a confidential and anonymous discussion about the company culture.

Take all the information you gather and talk about it. Identify the problem. Let everyone know why the culture is unacceptable and how you plan to change it.

2 – Define the Alternative – Define the culture that you and your team desire. Again, gather input from your team. Make sure you are creating a culture that will attract and retain the talent you need. Focus on what your most prized people are asking for.

3 – Put it In Writing – Document your culture by writing down the core values that will drive it. Your core values tell your people what you value and how you will behave. Expect to have three to ten well-defined core values. Less is more. Vision leaks and so do values. Understand that a lot of repetition will be required to instill the values in the hearts and minds of your people. Be careful about using generic terms like “integrity” and failing to define what actions represent the core value. I recommend using “therefore we will” statements.

For example, this is what a core value of “fun” might look like. We believe that having fun at work helps us perform better and live better lives. Therefore, we will… exhibit a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves; add personality to the customer experience; take our work seriously, but never ourselves.

Do you see how this level of clarity allows your people to self-evaluate? If a performance problem occurs, you can simply ask them if they believe their actions embodied the core value.

4 – Implement the Alternative – Your culture is now defined and in writing. How do you make it stick? Celebrate! Celebrate the tiniest examples of someone walking out a core value. Evaluate and promote your people based on meeting performance expectations and how they lived out the core values. Bad leaders can meet performance expectations at the expense of your culture and do a really good job of hiding their behaviors from you. Make sure you have systems that allow you to listen to your people at all levels of your organization.

Hire and fire according to your values. Create interview questions to determine if someone is likely to live out a core value. Fire even your best performers if they are not willing to act according to the core values. In the long term, you will increase the value of your organization by firing the high performer with bad character.

5 – Stay Humble – Humble leaders listen. You must listen to your employees. You must give them avenues to speak up anonymously because bad cultures are full of fear. Make sure you can hear “around” your managers and leaders. You’ll need that information to coach your leaders and to sniff out bad ones. Ask for feedback on how well you live out the values. You must make this anonymous or you’ll never hear any bad news!

Great cultures build great companies. I love strategy, but must agree with Peter Drucker that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If you must choose between culture and strategy, choose culture and you’ll beat the leader who selected strategy and ignored culture.

Do you have a winning culture at your organization?

Have a business growth topic or question you’d like me to cover? Send suggestions to cfowler@valuesdrivenresults.com or use our contact form by clicking here.

Curt Fowler is President of Fowler & Company and Director at Fowler, Holley, Rambo & Stalvey . He is dedicated to helping leaders create and achieve a compelling vision for their organization. He is a syndicated business writer, keynote speaker and has an MBA in Strategy and Entrepreneurship from the Kellogg School. He is also a CPA and a pretty good guy as defined by his wife and four children.

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